We all know why mobile messaging is a good investment for a digital campaign. But just in case you’ve been busy for the past few years, here’s some good news for you:
Mobile messaging (SMS and MMS) is an inexpensive technology that regularly achieves a 95% open rate. This technology lets you send hyper targeted messages to mobilize in times of crisis. If your messages are crafted to optimize content, scheduling and targeting, they have the potential to be a game-changing tool for your campaign or organization.
As creators of unique mobile messaging technology ourselves, the Revolution Messaging team has spent a lot of time talking about best practices, as well as tactics to be avoided at all costs. We know how to take advantage of big moments, to personalize Mobile messages, and to keep things short and sweet.
But there’s one topic we haven’t blogged about, and that’s how to connect with younger people like millennials and Generation Z through mobile messaging.
Young people are a powerful force in today’s political and social landscape. And like every generation that has come before them, millennials and Generation Z are associated with certain stereotypes. We picture them as the driving force behind smartphone usage and social media sites (although we know those statistics are more complicated than that). They’re supposed to be lazier and more anxious than Generation Y, fans of a specific shade of pink and obsessed with memes, selfies and avocado toast. (Here’s a big disclaimer: this article was written and edited by millennials.)
While some of these stereotypes might have a veneer of truth (and for the most part aren’t hurting anyone), there’s one we need to eliminate if our messaging campaigns are going to succeed: the myth that young people love being targeted with memes or texting slang.
Simple modern texting slang, SMS language, textese or text speak is the linguistic trend of shortening words and replacing letters with numbers. It became popular at the advent of text and instant messaging; early usage brings to mind phrases like “L8r g8r” and “Soz,” “HAK” that make anyone who lived through the 2000s cringe reflexively. But a lot of the simpler phrases stuck with us, and today they’re thrown around in personal conversations, as well as Slack channels and on emails at work—shorthands like “LOL,” “LMK,” “FYI,” “WTF” and so on.
With the proliferation of the internet have come hundreds of new linguistic styles and memes. Phrases characterized by misspellings, deliberately incorrect punctuation and stylistic oddities are everywhere online today. While they might seem like nonsense, these linguistic memes, from some of the earliest—”I can haz cultural relevance?”—to the more recent, can be highly nuanced and reference one another in complex ways.
It’s tempting to try using memes or texting slang when you’re using mobile messaging to connect with a younger audience—after all, you’re using a platform that many of these trends were designed on, messaging people who you might expect to use them every day.
But working too hard to be “hip” can backfire—hard. Everyone knows the pitfalls of companies trying to be cool by mimicking trends popular with younger people, especially trends born from an internet subculture. It’s the classic “Dad just wants to be cool like you” syndrome. It can come off as out of touch.
Even worse, campaigns who choose this tactic risk alienating supporters. Co-opting internet memes, texting slang, or just general stereotypes of “youth culture” at best looks disingenuous and will make a target audience cringe—at worst, it’s condescending.
For a general example of digital messaging gone wrong, we turn to Microsoft. Believe it or not, Microsoft managed to throw away almost every basic best practice that you learn on your first day of work in one 2016 recruiting email.
For a young person looking for an internship position that might allow them to support themselves in an increasingly restrictive job market, this email reads less “fun and exclusive” and more “tone-deaf and inappropriate.” They’d like to be treated as a working professional, please—if that’s not too much to ask?
But Microsoft was far from the only one to take a major misstep in digital messaging in the past few years. Some, like Presidential candidate Ben Carson’s campaign, skipped past co-opting basic slang and went straight for the jugular.
In 2016, Carson’s campaign released a radio advertisement—featuring heavy bass, a rapper in the background, and clips of Carson’s stump speech—in what appeared to be an attempt to appeal to young black voters. (And whatever you’re imagining, it’s probably worse.)
The song opened Carson up to a prolonged cycle of mockery. Not only did the idea of “rapping to appeal to young people of color” feel overdone, but the music itself sounded dated. Carson later spoke out against the ad, stating that members of his campaign who had “no concept of the black community and what they were doing” had released it without his knowledge.
Both of these messaging campaigns attempted to digitally pander to young people about serious issues (and in Carson’s case people of color) by using what they imagined to be the “trendy” messaging styles du jour. And both crashed and burned.
This isn’t to say that campaigns and organizations can’t use slang or memes without provoking outrage or mockery. There are plenty of examples of campaigns and organizations who are using memes and slang in effective and hilarious ways. (I mean, have you seen Wendy’s Twitter?) But just because we’re in a new era of messaging doesn’t mean the basic rules of marketing go out the window. So here’s a good rule of thumb: match your language to your message. If you’re trying to make something serious sound “cool,” it’s probably much better to just speak honestly.
Despite the stereotypes, millennials and Generation Z are a group of people who hold the fate of our country in their hands. Think they’re a powerful consumer, voting and activist bloc? Then treat them like it, especially when you’re messaging them about serious issues. Your campaign will get further if you focus on what makes your message authentic, rather than how you can skew your language to appeal to your supporters. They’ll like you better—and more importantly, respect you more for it.
Maddie Fishburn is a Business Development Associate at Revolution Messaging. She’s based in Washington, DC.